The Insights Blog

How not to react when your agency loses a pitch

How not to react when your agency loses a pitch

should be the visual

We recently ran a creative review for a fine regional brand.

The client was battling much larger competition and were outspent dramatically. The client needed new breakthrough creative to help their budget work harder. They knew that the right agency partner, creating the right work, could be the marketing effectiveness multiplier they needed to compete. The creative fee budget, a tidy $1 million per year, was certainly not a huge budget. But it was huge to the client.

A small group of fine small agencies were invited to participate. The field included multiple AdAge Small Agency of the Year Award winners. The client was thrilled with the field, including the presence of one specific agency that boasted a star-studded cast of industry veterans. This team had done it all and won every imaginable award from Cannes to Effies to Clios. They individually and collectively had a stellar reputation.

What happened next is a lesson for agencies of all sizes and reputations!

What happened? The high powered, big reputation agency produced a very disappointing showing and did not advance. That happens. Everybody has a bad day. It’s how they reacted to being cut that provides a “learning moment” for agencies everywhere.

When the Mercer Island Consultant delivered the news, the reaction from the high-powered big reputation agency exec was:

“We didn’t want the client’s business that badly. It wasn’t enough money and so we wouldn’t have ever put that kind of time/effort in.”


In one quick moment, the agency unnecessarily diminished their reputation.

Here’s the outcome of their poor showing:

They cost another fine agency an opportunity to compete for the business.

Despite their half-hearted effort, they wasted their own time.

They wasted Mercer Island Group’s time.

And they wasted our client’s time.

And all of that is okay, as everyone has a bad day, and we certainly aren’t perfect. No one is. This would have been simply “a bad day at the office” if it wasn’t for their reaction:

“We didn’t want the client’s business that badly.”

Self-inflicted reputation damage.

Consider the lasting memory this agency created for me, my team and the client. It’s unforgettable. It’s the stuff of stories over a beer, or a blogpost. Something significant would have to change for us to feel confident enough in the future to include them in another review.

To be clear, we don’t know what really happened. Maybe the agency ended up being over-committed. Maybe someone was ill. All kinds of normal human challenges could have interrupted the agency’s ability to shine. I honestly hope everything is okay at that agency. But taking them at their word, they simply didn’t care enough about my client or the opportunity to respect the client, my team or themselves. You rarely get a do-over on the first impressions you create.

What can agencies learn from this story?

If you decide to pitch business, go all-in. You won’t win if you don’t go all-in. There are so many fine agencies! And you’ll be wasting your own time. Perhaps most important, you’ll also run the risk of diminishing your agency’s reputation if you do a half-hearted job.

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.